Cemetery Man [1994] at the Museum of Arts and Design

There has been a lot of cinematic water under the bridge of my life between the last time I’d seen Michele Soavi’s “Cemetery Man” and last night’s screening of that film at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. While I count that movie as a favorite, I was a little nervous about re-watching it and maybe falling out of love. I had a sad experience with not enjoying Soavi’s “Stage Fright” as much as I’d remembered a few months back, and I wasn’t eager to revisit that feeling.

Much like the central romance between the cemetery caretaker and his nameless beloved, my adoration for this film has only grown stronger and perhaps madder with time. This is such a damn-near perfect movie in its execution that it’s almost heartbreaking.
Through some supernatural means, the dead are rising from their graves in Buffalora Cemetery. This puts caretaker Francesco Dellamorte in a bit of a bind, since he knows that the townspeople will never believe such a fantastic story. With the help of his simpleton assistant Gnaghi, Francesco does his best to suppress the invasion. His life is forever changed when he falls in love with a nameless young widow, “the most beautiful living woman” he has ever seen. He discovers that she shares his romantic notions about death and decay and the two engage in a tryst that’s simultaneously creepy and undeniably erotic.* Those who’ve seen this film will know the turn things take from here, but for the benefit of folks who will want to experience this film with fresh eyes, I’ll just say that there’s a genuinely surreal, nightmare spiral to the plot that sweeps the viewer along on its strange course.
*This segment of the film includes one of my favorite lines ever. I will die happy if a beautiful woman ever tells me I’ve “got a real nice ossuary.”

Adapted from a book by “Dylan Dog” scribe Tiziano Sclavi, one the key strengths of “Cemetery Man” comes from its shifting tones of dark comedy, tragic romance, and visceral horror. It defies efforts to pin down the story’s thematic focus, and while it’s got prominent comedic elements, the primary feeling I have walking away from this movie is one of loss and despair. This is not primarily a smarter than average, shoot-em-up romp, even though there are plenty of those moments. “Cemetery Man” is about the potential emptiness of life and the insanity of love. There’s no convenient “Shaun of the Dead” coda to make the audience feel good walking away from the film.

Much like the work of the Surrealists, this film forces one to experience the sexually appealing and the grotesque in one gulp. There’s a strange beauty to design of the film, from the crowded funereal kitsch of the cemetery itself (god, how I want to believe that’s a real place!) to the unique appearance of the zombies. Special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, who I usually associate with the goopy, black blood period of Dario Argento’s career, has created dry, root-sprouting revenants that have a dark fantasy look that’s much different from the coroner’s office realness that one has come to expect from a Romero-inspired zombie film.
There’s some wonderful puppeteering in this film as well, including one of my favorite on-screen representations of the angel of death. I like the fact that there’s a stageyness to the execution of these practical effects–it serves to underscore the other-than-realness of the story.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Rupert Everett’s performance in the lead role. In a weird hall-of-mirrors bit of casting, Everett inspired the appearance of Sclavi’s Dylan Dog character, and was the choice to play the lead in this very Dylan-Dog-esque film. Not only does he look the part, he’s incredibly natural as the misanthropic, hermit-like Francesco. Paired with plastic-fantastic Anna Falchi in the role of the young widow, the two make for quite an eye candy pairing during their love scenes.

All this, plus a Magritte-inspired kiss? “Cemetery Man” is a movie that feels like it was made with my viewership in mind.
I’ve seen this film at least a dozen times, and I really can’t think of another movie quite like it. I’m genuinely moved by the romance, I laugh at the comedy, and the ending still makes me think. I like being challenged by movies that are grown from the soil of genre entertainment–it’s proof that there’s meat on the bones of these ideas yet.
I wish I could find the name of the person or team who’s curating the current film series at the Museum of Arts and Design, because there’s a clear love of psychotronic cinema in his/her/their mind(s) [what an awkward way to have to express that thought–sheesh]. Tonight and tomorrow night, the museum will be showing “Demons” and “Demons II,” and beginning on September 23rd, there will be a program of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m nigh upon pants-peeing with delight at this prospect, as you might imagine! Both the Jodorowsky series and the Zombo Italiano film program are linked with the Dead or Alive: Nature Becomes Art exhibit currently on view at the museum through October.

I Love You, Dame Darcy

While I was growing up, I struggled with my expectations of female role models. While it was simple for me to shrug off or embrace the shortcomings of male artists, filmmakers, musicians, and actors, there was always a little place in my heart yearning for an ideal woman who was courageous, talented, and prolific in her self-expression while maintaining a unique character and a captivating public persona. I realize now how completely unfair it was to expect that of any human being–we’re all entitled to our limitations, regardless of gender.

That having been acknowledged, it’s kind of astonishing how many women did meet my starry-eyed adolescent criteria, from Grace Jones to Wendy O. Williams to Pam Grier (each of whom I’d seen in movies), as well as later revelations that came from Riot Grrrls and sex-positive activists. I celebrated seeing people who were (superficially, at least) like me who were doing more than providing pretty set-dressing*. That’s huge for a young woman, and one of the great things about the expanded horizons of internet entertainment is that young people now have access to a whole host of images that they would have had to painstakingly hunt down a couple of decades ago.
*Or “being somebody’s wife.” I STILL feel like such a shithead for making rottten Beatles-fan Yoko Ono jokes as a kid, not understanding how frikkin’ visionary that woman is as an artist before meeting any sainted penners of scatological poems and pop songs.

One of the women who’s held a long-lasting and special place in my heart is artist Dame Darcy. Ever since I chanced on issue one of her Victorian/Surrealist/Erotic/Macabre comic “Meat Cake” in an independent magazine store** in the early-ish 90s, my pupils turn into little heart-shapes when I think about her.
**In retrospect, these were a lot like being inside somebody else’s blog-roll, only they smelled of rotting paper. Someone needs to get on making a rotting paper incense so the independent magazine store experience can be recaptured and preserved for future generations.

Employing an energetic, fine-line illustration style and an eye for eccentric details, Dame Darcy’s work has a surface similarity to that of Edward Gorey. Certainly, fans of Gorey’s ghoulish vision will find a lot to love here! But Darcy goes at least three steps further, incorporating images of queer sexuality, baroque violence and gleeful lecherousness into her creepy comix landscape. Her world is more Brothers Grimm than twee adorableness, and she has a fixation on Victorian morality tales. There’s also an off-kilter appreciation for contemporary pop culture that’s evident in characters like her creation Strega Pez, a woman who expresses herself via engraved tablets that are forced from the gaping wound in her neck.
It was with great joy (and–yeah–more than a little nostalgia) that I discovered a just-released-this-June compendium of “Meat Cake” issues, lovingly designed and published by Fantagraphics. Really–you owe yourself a treat. Go grab the latest “Meat Cake” book from your funnybook purveyor of choice (or from Amazon, if you are lazy).
Her award-winning animation work brings her vision to eerie life. Much as I’d like to embed her “Golden Shoes” clip here, you’ll have to click over to YouTube and check it out. Trust me, interpals–you’re going to want to click that.
As if I couldn’t admire Darcy any more, it turns out that she’s got a fearless attitude to match her off-beat artistic vision. Check out her appearance on the not-really-lamented teevee show “Blind Date”. Let’s watch:
I wish I could kamikaze a date that way. I’d probably NOT participate in the hot-tub part, though, which is further proof of the Dame’s fearlessness.
My admiration for Dame Darcy is refreshingly uncomplicated–she’s a skilled artist with a fantastical vision who seems to be a genuinely fierce and oddball individual. I’m glad I share a planet with her.
Check out Dame Darcy’s website, where you can view (and purchase!) prints, books, and original art pieces.

Leone Frollo’s Naga la Maga (Naga the Witch)

One of the things that made me fascinated with the world of Italian adult comics (fumetti neri and erotici) was the fact that I liked to fill in the blanks where my meager knowledge of Italian started to fail me. Certainly the ideas behind these dirty stories are no sillier than the ones in mainstream American comics–sometimes if I want to feel really high without actually ingesting anything mind-altering, I read Wiki articles on Marvel Universe characters. I was recently learning about alternate versions of The Hulk, and I couldn’t get past the fact that there’s something called the Professor Hulk that’s not an comedy YouTube program. While that shit is most certainly nuts and compelling, it lacks an important factor: graphic nudity.

Enter the Italian adult comic.
Naga la Maga
Just like their mainstream American counterparts, adult fumetti characters have their own elaborate backstories and wild adventures, but with WAY more boobs, bush and peen, thus marking an evolutionary leap (at least in my mind). Naga la Maga, actually named Natasha Romanoff and inheritrix of the Tsarist bloodline, learned her erotic brand of witchcraft from the fabled Russian mage Rasputin. Accompanied by her lover-cum-manservant Yul (yes, he’s the big, bald, liveried “King and I” dude) and a dippy Louise-Brooks-alike named Zita de Tordeville, Naga embarks on a series of adventures that bring her in contact with such characters as the Frankenstein Monster, Rudolph Valentino, and Arsene Lupin. Her exploits are brought to life by renowned illustrator Leone Frollo, whose late-career erotic watercolor pinups may be familiar to US audiences.
Naga la Maga
In the stories contained in this little paperback, published in the US by a company called Eurocomics, Naga ventures to Tibet to rescue Zita from the Fu-Manchu-ish He-Who-Lives-Without-Pleasure. Her relationship with Yul is pretty strange–he frequently takes the form of an elegant afghan hound, and is willing to pleasure his mistress in man-form or dog-form. Also, we now know how the sound of kicking a submissive in the ribs translates into Italian. The more you know…!
Naga la Maga
Naga has a zepplin that she pilots. Allow me to repeat for emphasis: NAGA HAS A ZEPPELIN.
Naga la Maga
More helpful Italian-language onomatopoeia.
Naga la Maga

After fleeing from He-Who-Lives-Without-Pleasure, Zita is kidnapped by a yeti, who everyone thinks has rapey intentions, but it turns out they’re all jerks with unfounded prejudices and the yeti has a much more romantic side.
Naga la Maga
Also, Yul has sex with a giant bee.
If you ever wondered what on earth those characters were saying in scenes of weird lovin’, this is what they’re saying. And trust me, the lead-up to this particular coupling doesn’t clarify matters. Yul and Naga are strolling through the forest when they are attacked by giant bee that has been sent to kill them by He-Who-Lives-Without-Pleasure. But since the bee is female and it has been kept in a cage for so long, it’s overwhelmed by lust for Yul (just like in nature) and he has to sate the creatures desires before they can continue. Yes, you can figure this all out just by looking at the panels–the English translations in the copy I own shed no light on the matter.

The Big Score [1983]

It’s a fact that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Take point A and connect it to point B, don’t deviate, stay the course, ruler and pen to paper, et voila! Simplicity itself. What works so beautifully on graph paper doesn’t necessarily translate as well to the craft of storytelling, and it’s rare that I see a more crystal-clear example of this than in Fred Williamson’s 1983 crime drama “The Big Score,” a movie I prefer to call “Look In the Goddamn Trunk, You Idiots” for reasons that will become apparent shortly.

“The Big Score” features Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (who also directed) in a starring role as Frank Hooks, a Chicago police detective in the Dirty Harry mold with an itchy trigger finger and a penchant for booty-calling his ex-wife Angie (played by renowned jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, an unusually elegant and age-appropriate match for the middle-aged action star). Hooks, along with his partner Davis (John “Mark of Quality” Saxon) and his other partner Gordon (Richard Roundtree, “Shaft” himself), work the narcotics beat. After a bust goes awry and the drug money goes missing, the cops have to track down the cash in order to clear their names, coming up against drug lord Mayfield (Joe Spinell) and his cronies in the process.
The review that follows will be a spoiler-filled examination of the most unrepentantly, joyfully dumb ninety minutes I’ve spent in recent memory. If that sounds like a recommendation of this film, it is! But f’reals–if you want “The Big Score” to hold any surprises, go track down a copy (fellow Netflixers–this is available on Instant Watch) and *then* get to reading.

The Big Score
Hobo John Saxon–I like those words together.
The movie is pretty promising in blurb form–you’ve got a fabulous B-film cast doing actioney stuff and spouting tough-guy dialogue. What elevates this movie to a level of stupid that was fresh even to me was the device on which the plot hinges.
Allow me to elaborate, won’t you?
Hooks, Davis, Gordon, and some other cops who we never hear from again show up to stake out a drug transaction in a deserted warehouse. They exchange some macho dialogue about pissing on one another for revenge since Davis is disguised as a hobo (no, really). Dealer Goldy (Michael Dante doing his finest Henry Silva impersonation) notices Hooks spying on him through a window (d’oh) and flees the scene, but not before grabbing a large leather briefcase filled with a million dollars in cash. Hooks chases Goldy through a series of alleys, trading gunfire with the villain. At one point, while Hooks is about a hundred feet away from him, Goldy stashes the briefcase in the trunk of a broken-down car in the middle of an abandoned lot. Hooks proceeds to shoot Goldy several times, killing the dealer, and in the process losing track of the money.
The Big Score
A thorough search of the area.
This is where shit gets crazy.
Hooks, Davis and Gordon are reprimanded for sloppy policework and are told to find the cash at all costs. Now, already this rings a little bizarre, since this presumes that none of the cops who swarmed to the scene of the shooting thought to look in the trunk of the car, which was the lone structure in the abandoned lot that the last place where Goldy was seen carrying the briefcase. To underscore this point, there’s a scene where Davis and Hooks return to the abandoned lot independently of one another, look at the car, and deem the cash to be completely, utterly, definitively missing. That’s right–neither man opens the trunk of the car during that scene, either, even though their careers are on the line and they’re being accused of stealing a million dollars of drug money. That’s like not looking behind the milk in the fridge in order to track down the crucial life-saving medication that you know you put in there earlier in the afternoon. Once Mayfield catches wind of the missing loot, he sends his goons Koslo (Bruce Glover, dad of Crispin, who has a bit of a Willem Dafoe thang going on here) and Jumbo to track it down and–you guessed it! They never bother to look in the trunk of the car. In fact, over the course of several days and repeated visits to the empty lot, no character ever opens the trunk of the car, and ultimately the vehicle is destroyed by kids playing with firecrackers. Kids who don’t look in the trunk of the fucking car either, which has been standing partially ajar throughout the course of the movie.
The Big Score
Ladies and gentlemen, witness the GREATEST HIDING PLACE in the history of cinema. King Solomon’s Mines have NOTHING on the trunk of an abandoned car.
In a genre notable for its overly convenient plot devices, “not opening the trunk” really takes the cake. In fact, “not opening the trunk” becomes a downright disturbing plot device that transforms this movie into a commentary on the prevalence of violence in America and the cheapness and futility of life in an urban environment. People DIE because of “not opening the trunk.” Let’s take a look at the list of characters that have died as a direct result of not opening the fucking trunk:
  1. Cheech (the overweight, barbeque-loving informant who tips the cops off to the plot-igniting drug sale)
  2. Davis
  3. Mayfield’s henchman
  4. Koslo
  5. Jumbo
  6. Hooks’ cat
  7. Mayfield’s dog
Keep in mind that this list doesn’t account for the people who were knee-capped, face-punched, and psychologically scarred by the lack of trunk opening taking place in this movie.
The Big Score
Should we maybe open the trunk? Do cars even have trunks? Fuck–what the hell is a trunk? Let’s go shoot some shoplifters.
These lapses in judgement and this lack of thoroughness typify the police procedural elements in “The Big Score.” In Fred Williamson’s world, cops always shoot to kill, and the Double Tap is a perfectly reasonable alternative to taking a suspect into custody. Everyone talks like a tough guy, even when it’s not strictly necessary. After assassinating Hooks’ cat, Koslo phones Hooks and ominously warns that “next time, it WON’T be the cat.” Well, yes, naturally, because THE CAT IS ALREADY DEAD. There’s lots of talk about metaphorical “assholes” and “shit” and “fucking,” but there’s no nudity or sex. What a very strange universe this film exists in…
The Big Score
And then there’s the matter of those phone calls. A significant percentage of the dialogue is carried out over the phone, because Hooks is ALWAYS reachable via phone, even though this is 1983. He takes phone calls at his ex-wife’s house, in the office, at his own apartment, in his car, and at his wife’s nightclub. Does he have the best call forwarding service in the world or what?
The action scenes in this movie are right in line with the Hammer’s other work–there’s the trash talk, the awkward karate, and the aforementioned flippant use of firearms. Once you see Hooks put his hands up in tiger claw position, you know somebody’s in for a (slow-paced, carefully-choreographed) ass-kicking. I love that kind of Kirk Fighting, make no mistake. This movie goes a step or several further than fisticuffs and gunplay and features not one but two well-executed Exploding Person scenes. And I don’t mean “people jumping off of trampolines in front of gasoline explosions”–I’m talking about full-on “dummy stuffed with pig parts and fireworks” junk on a par with the climax of “The Fury.”

The Big Score
Can I watch a movie that doesn’t have a demolitions expert in it? Do they even exist?
I had a blast watching “The Big Score.” I kept waiting for it to try to redeem itself on any level approaching an intellectual one, but it kept giving me the finger. It was as if the movie was trying to say “I have no deeper meaning, and fuck you for trying to find one–I’m gonna hurt you BAD if you insist on analyzing me.” Engaging with this movie as a gritty crime drama will only lead to disappointment, but if you go in expecting to be brainfuckled by dumbery, you are going to hit cinematic paydirt.

The Devil’s Wedding Night [1973]

I was having lunch with my dad a few months back, going over movies we’d recently seen, and he expressed surprise that Hammer Studios put out several of “those European Titty Movies” during the 1970s. For my dad as well as for many folks reading this now, “The Vampire Lovers” probably embodies the Platonic Ideal of the European Titty Movie.* Think about it–“Countess Dracula” is “The Vampire Lovers” from the vampire’s POV, “Twins of Evil” is “The Vampire Lovers” with twins, “Lust for a Vampire” is “The Vampire Lovers” sent to boarding school. And then there’s all the other post-“Vampire Lovers” output from the Continent. Yes, “The Vampire Lovers” is kind of the International Prototype Kilogram against which all other units of weight must be measured–just substitute “European Titty Movie” for “units of weight.” Vampires provide a convenient (read: “cheap and frequently naked”) axis for the plot of the European Titty Movie, but satanic cults, mad scientists and man-monsters like the werewolf function pretty well in their stead.

*It’s true that there were many Italian gothics made prior to “The Vampire Lovers” that undoubtedly influenced that movie, but I do think this film most perfectly distills the themes of this type of film. Same goes for the giallo–while there were numerous pre-“Bird with the Crystal Plumage” gialli, there’s an excellent argument to be made that this movie really formed the genre as it’s recognized today.

The Devil's Wedding Night
Enter today’s topic of discussion, Luigi Batzella’s 1973 toss-off toss-away “The Devil’s Wedding Night.” Combine vampire lore with Satanic trappings, and might not have the ultimate European Titty Movie, but you’ve got a recipe for a decent enough way to spend ninety minutes.
Nobleman Karl Schiller sets off in search of the mythical ring of the Nibelungen which has found its way to the Carpathian Mountains through quirks of fate and the need to incorporate a Dracular twist to this tale. His twin brother Franz, a Rake And Scoundrel of ruffly-cuffed proportions, follows him in his quest in hopes of finding enough treasure to pay off his significant gambling debts. Ignoring the warnings of the villagers who tell Franz about a cycle of sinister disappearances stretching back through generations, Franz arrives at the castle rumored to house the ring. Once there, he meets the luscious Countess Dolingen de Vries, who makes short order of seducing him. Conveniently, brother Karl turns up a matter of minutes post-seduction and has to sort out the mystery of the disappearances, which now include his brother. If you guessed that the countess is a vampire, you get no cookie. If you guessed that the countess is a vampire looking for a body to house the spirit of her beloved husband Count Dracula through the application of occult rituals and virgin sacrifice, you get half a cookie.
The Devil's Wedding Night
Not nearly as atmospheric as the Italian gothics of the 1960s but with several more sets of bare boobs than those films, “The Devil’s Wedding Night” is goofy entertainment with several elements that recommend it to fans of this sort of period-piece wackiness. The sets are several times more sumptuous than one should rightly expect, and appear to have been filmed at the same location as “The Bloody Pit of Horror.” And I mean this literally—-I recognize the red-painted, ivy-framed door that’s used in exterior shots of the castle**. The costumes are well-handled and are pretty similar to what one would expect from similar movies–dirndls, empire waists, and gauzy gowns predominate, with ruffles and capes for the gentlemen.
**I bet whoever owns this ancestral abode is a real character. He/she must be the go-to person in such cases: “Hi, I’ve got a crew of nubiles that I need to film getting freaked out in some sort of vaguely period setting. Can you spend the weekend at your seaside home so we can set up shop in your place? Great–thanks!”
The Devil's Wedding Night
“But what of the boobs?” you may rightly ask. Well, for those of you paying attention, you’ll note that the Countess is played by Rosalba Neri (credited here as Sara Bay), an actress who’s becoming a fave of mine. She’s featured in several nude scenes, including one in which she takes a fabulous Bathory-esque blood-bath, rising from the tub silhouetted against a curtain of smoke. There’s an exhibitionism to her performance her that comes close to Laura Gemser’s depiction of Emanuelle. One gets the sense that this villainess has more in common with the tough-as-nails broads of noir pulp fiction than with the dissipated flouncings of other screen vamps. Goings-on are spiced up by the Countess’ ambiguously sexy relationship with her housekeeper, Lara. Goings-on are further spiced up when we get to the virgin sacrifice portion of our film, which involves five young women sporting see-through white gowns (helpfully spot-lit from behind) being stripped and bound by cultists.
The Devil's Wedding Night
Director Batzella, whose stock in trade seems to have been sleazy exploitation cash-ins like the Nazi nasty “The Beast in Heat,” the retarded Rollin-esque “Nude for Satan” and something released here in the States as “Gymkata Killer”***, is by no means a careful technician. That having been said, there is some fine cinematography from Joe D’Amato**** that uses some tricky lens effects as well as a nice incorporation of flat-black backdrops to heighten the sense of hallucinatory weirdness.
***I think it’s rad beyond words that there was a “Gymkata” knock-off. I’m not sure if I want to see it, but it makes my world just that much more deliciously strange knowing that this exists. Kind of like the way I feel about the coelacanth.
****I find it necessary to repeat this about D’Amato’s cinematography–dude was talented, lemme tell you. It’s like he made a deliberate decision to be like “fuckit, I’m making ‘Anthropophagus’–give these bitches the bread and circuses and fetus-eating that they want.” It’s kind of crazy to think about, but there you have it!
The Devil's Wedding Night
The middling-to-un-good elements are about even with the good ones in this film. Leading man Mark Damon, who many of you will recognize as the hero from Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday,” was never an actor who captured my imagination, and nothing happens here to change my opinion of him. The dual role of Karl and Fritz is sketched mainly by the characters’ actions rather than by any mannerisms or other clever touches that the characters exhibit. Sure, it’s a cute allusion to Barbara Steele’s dual role in “Black Sunday,” but it just kinda made me wish I was watching her and not him. Like many of these creaky gothics, there’s a lot of wandering-around time incorporated into the story that could’ve been used to create more tension. This isn’t a boring film, but it borders on going into boringness territory now and again.
The Devil's Wedding Night
I’ve got a soft spot for this kind of gleefully ridiculous occult storytelling, so for me “The Devil’s Wedding Night” was fun to watch. It does what it says on the tin (if in place of “tin” we use the words “movie poster”)–it showed vampires and virgins and appealingly naked breasts. Those seeking a deeper meaning or the kind of aesthetic flourishes found in earlier examples of the genre should look elsewhere, but for those seeking a late-Hammer-flavored filmic snack, this does the trick quite nicely.

The Driller Killer [1979]

One rarely has a neutral, even-keel day living in the sprawl of New York City. There’s a Sensory Overload factor to existing among millions of people, each with a unique look, smell, agenda and physical presence. Sometimes the trajectory of your day puts you in contact with interesting folks and sometimes you’re doomed to a less pleasant fellow-human-related experience (I don’t need to tell you that a 95-degree-plus heatwave does nothing good for the atmosphere on the city’s subway platforms). There’s an intensity inherent in living in an urban environment and that means one has to suffer through the lousy stuff in order to savor the good moments. It’s pretty much like living inside a mood swing, and it’s not always your own mood swing.

In his 1979 film “The Driller Killer,” Abel Ferrara sketches the life of a singularly unappealing painter who’s driven to homicidal mania by the dirtiness, meanness and disruption of life in Manhattan. But not, like, “farmer’s market and chain restaurants in Union Square” Manhattan as it exists today–this is the “trash in the streets and bums sleeping in the doorways of abandoned buildings in Union Square” Manhattan that resulted from the economic downturn of the 1970s. It’s a place whose sense of menace was captured most famously in “Taxi Driver” and which struck a chord of dread in the hearts of many Americans at the time. The notion of escaping from New York in 2010 leaves the folks spending multiple thousands of dollars to rent apartments in Brooklyn scratching their collective heads, but when John Carpenter made a movie around that concept in 1980, it was a punchline that was appreciated internationally.
The Driller Killer
Real estate market and pervading economic conditions aside, people who live in New York can tell you that there’s an echo of Ferrara’s city that still exists today. The low points in the mood-swing cycle of city life don’t feel so very distant from the garbage-strewn, threatening New York of “The Driller Killer.” In the same way that “Ms. 45” shows the effect of overwhelming urban ugliness on its female protagonist, “The Driller Killer” shows an erosion of patience and eventual break with reality in its male lead. This is a loud, raw, angry film that’s over the top in the manner of the best punk bands.
The Driller Killer
Reno Miller (played with seething oiliness by director Ferrara, who credited himself here as Jimmy Laine) is a painter living with his girlfriend Carol and her girlfriend Pamela, while working to put the finishing touches on a piece that he believes will be the pinnacle of his artistic career. His agent has cut him off from further advances in pay while Carol and Pamela continue to spend Reno’s dwindling funds on phonecalls and partying. The final insult happens when Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters, a punk rock band that Pamela follows, move into the apartment downstairs, practicing their abrasive, high-volume riffs day and night. Inspired by late-night teevee commercials for the Porto-Pack, a battery-powered gadget that allows its wearer to walk about freely while running electrical appliances, Reno hooks up his ominously-foreshadowed power drill and rampages through the city streets killing a host of derelicts before deciding to take things to a more personal level.
The Driller Killer
In addition to Ferrara’s startlingly unhinged depiction of Reno Miller, there are several memorable performances from the supporting cast. Some may scoff at Baybi Day’s turn as Pamela, but having known more than my fair share of drug-blitzed club kids and alternative fashion slaves, I’ve got to say that she’s perfect in her doe-eyed lack of affect (to make no mention of her lack of good judgement). Also interestingly cast is real-life artist D.A. Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola (credited as Rhodney Montreal). He sneers authentically through his role, but perhaps his best contribution comes in the form of the paintings attributed to Reno. One of my frequent quibbles with movies that show artists is that they’ll only show *one* painting, or an *inconsistent* series of paintings. In this case, there are numerous artworks glimpsed throughout the film, and they show a clear progression from psychedelic portraits through to Reno’s (notably human-free) buffalo painting that he feels will be his masterwork.
The Driller Killer
“The Driller Killer” is a film that was destined to find its fanbase with cult film enthusiasts rather than with lovers of horror movies. It’s clear from its iconic opening title card (shown above) that this is going to be the cinematic equivalent of the angry counterculture music that characterized its time. In spite of bearing a name that beckons to slasher fanatics and a spot on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasties” list, “The Driller Killer” is a far more confrontational and challenging film than many will expect. The movie sports a similar pitch black satirical tone to its sister film “Ms. 45,” exhibiting a nihilistic attitude to the everyday unkindnesses of just-above-poverty-line urban life. Its footing is firmly in the soil of punk rock and early new wave culture, eschewing the “tune in, turn on, drop out” attitude of the hippie generation in favor of an aggressive, often destructive, expression of frustration. The post-industrial landscape becomes a post-apocalyptic one and its inhabitants flail madly in their attempts to survive, let alone express themselves.

The Driller Killer
I’ve heard it hypothesized that the portrayal of Rome in Federico Fellini’s films captures that city better and more richly than more literal, “realistic” interpretations. If that’s the case, then I think Ferrara’s depiction of New York City is the same–there’s such a profound sense of place in these films that the story couldn’t be uprooted and placed elsewhere without it making a significant impact on the narrative. The ghastly city streets should get top billing here.